William Ewart Gladstone
William Ewart Gladstone; drawing by David Levine

“As I have done with that most offensive part of my task, the imposition of taxation, I feel as it is said men are wont to feel—and as some of us have felt—when they have ended their long upward journey and reached at length the summit of the Alps. Now I have the downward road before me and the plains of Italy are in my view. I come, then, Sir, to consider the more agreeable subject of the remission of taxation.”

Who but Gladstone could have said this? This is a quotation, well selected by Peter Stansky in his new biographical essay, from the Grand Old Man’s first Budget speech as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1853. Who else showed a self-importance as tall as a cathedral, and a wit about as light? The exactitude, the learning, the procession of words in dress uniform…. Disraeli’s jokes about Gladstone are the most hackneyed but still the best: “A sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity,” and “He has not a single redeeming defect,” and “A ceaseless Tartuffe from the beginning—that sort of man does not get mad at seventy.”

There was something very ridiculous about Gladstone, or, to be more accurate, something specially ridiculous for the two post-Victorian generations who were much concerned to drain the nineteenth century out of the twentieth. A man so grave about himself—and Peter Stansky quotes long, improbable passages of those speeches in which Gladstone bored the House of Commons stiff by proceeding to an examination of his own motives past, present, and to come—offered a large surface of absurdity. The tree-chopping, corresponding to the nail-biting or cigarette-smoking of slighter statesmen; the ambiguous wrestling with prostitutes for their souls and scanning of porn to know the worst; the frightful, Jahveh-like rage when somebody giggled at him in the House—all this has become grotesque, which is to say that the Victorian age is finally passing out of direct memory. Between the world wars the British laughed a great deal, and nervously, about Gladstone. But now the laughter is dying away. And past the man himself, past the personality who reminded everyone of his or her own father, his politics become steadily visible again. Gladstone’s causes are returning. To read Disraeli these days is certainly to find a man of our own times. But to read Gladstone is to recognize, in symptoms less widespread but very clearly defined, the diseases of the British state in 1979.

A hundred years after the Midlothian Campaign, and a century and a quarter after that Budget speech, another British government is claiming to stand at the summit of the Alps and to be able to see the downhill path to Italy. In 1853, Gladstone was breaking with the Tory decades of protection. He was opening the customs barriers to free trade in goods and ideas, claiming to be the liberator of suppressed national energy. In 1979, Mrs. Thatcher and her government understand themselves as the executioners of another protectionist tradition: the years of social-democracy, of the suppression of private enterprise and the protection of unprofitable employment. Their Italy is not the same as Gladstone’s. He hoped that free trade would bring greater fairness in society; they are fed up with equality. He wanted Britain to work for national liberation throughout the world; they want the world outside the neat garden fence of Western Europe and NATO to shut up and go away. His economic and social policies succeeded; theirs will probably not; he spoke at the right moment, while the Tories speak too late. And yet both put doctrine first, something not done in either case for many years, and Thatcher echoes Gladstone’s impatience for a drastic break with old ways.

Gladstone’s political career was, as Stansky notes in his title, a “progress.” He began as a rigid young Tory, defending slavery (his father owned a sugar plantation in the West Indies), opposing electoral reform, reluctant to end the sale of commissions in the army. He ended as an almost-radical Liberal, challenging the House of Lords, demanding Home Rule not only for Ireland but, if they wished it, for Scotland and Wales as well, stirring up the people to counterbalance the “ten thousand” of the privileged elite. He set out believing that the duty of the state was to serve as the executive of the Anglican Church, and wound up as the advocate of full toleration. He became immensely proud of this moral journey, even—in typical Puritan fashion—exaggerating the sinful Toryism of his youth. “I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty. I learned to believe in it. That is the key to all my changes.”

And yet he was not a revolutionary, and not really even a radical reformer. As Stansky discerns, Gladstone was always in some sense a Conservative. In boasting about “learning to believe in liberty,” he does himself too much honor, as usual; he felt that if the essentials of Britain were to remain the same, the inessentials must change. As his life went on, more and more of the habits and institutions of Britain appeared to him to be inessential, and in hindsight it’s easy to see that if he had succeeded in all his programs, especially Home Rule and the conflict with the Lords, he would have achieved a change of quality rather than quantity. He would have brought the British state to the brink of a continental, “republican” structure, and the upsurge of radical and socialist impatience in the first decade of the twentieth century would probably have pushed it over that brink.


Gladstone would not have wanted that, or accepted such an analysis. Each of his movements toward “liberty” had a preservative justification. Society must become more egalitarian, the franchise extended and privilege reduced, in order to reduce tension between classes. Ireland must be granted devolution because there was no other way to keep her at peace and within the Empire. The beliefs of the atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh were “loathsome and revolting,” but he must be allowed to refuse the religious terms of the parliamentary oath because the alternative might imply associating atheism with liberty in the future.

Gladstone’s concern for suppressed nationalities, for the subjects of tyrannies, for the victims of unrestrained imperialism, is famous enough. But it can’t be said that he was a believer in human rights. His religion, that strange combination of Evangelical self-improvement with admiration for hierarchy, was too traditional for that. The vote was a privilege, not a right, a reward for moral fortitude and loyalty. Liberty was necessary because it gave the opportunity for people to take themselves in hand, stand on their own feet. He saw his own career as “predominantly a history of emancipation—that of enabling man to do his work of emancipation, political, economical, social, moral, intellectual.”

His relations with public opinion were accordingly equivocal. Gladstone certainly did not believe that the vox populi was the voice of God. With the greatest possible respect (as British politicians introduce their most arrogant remarks), that voice was more likely to be his own. As Labouchère said, “I don’t object to Gladstone always having the ace of trumps up his sleeve, but merely to his belief that the Almighty put it there.” At the same time, Gladstone in some sense invented modern public opinion as a political force; not as the irresistible demands of the masses taking to the street, but as a sort of cart-horse, powerful and yet docile, which could be summoned from its stable by a qualified statesman to trot around the town and make a show of strength, but which could be relied upon not to emerge when it was not required. The great agitation against the Bulgarian Atrocities, just over a century ago, was perhaps the first example of this utterly British answer to the nasty foreign doctrines of popular sovereignty. Gladstone, relying on his enormous popularity, raised what he called “the virtuous passion” of the nation, not only against the Turks but against the Conservative administration, not only for the oppressed Bulgarians but for a foreign policy that was moral and pro-Christian.

His attitude to public opinion is well illustrated by his speech in favor of the admission to Parliament of Bradlaugh, a Victorian atheist, republican, and advocate of birth control. Although duly elected, Bradlaugh had been denied his seat because his atheism prevented him from taking the religious oath required of members of Parliament. As Peter Stansky says, Gladstone was well aware that public feeling was strongly against him and in favor of retaining the oath. In this case, it was the “Ten Thousand,” the political leaders, who knew better than the masses at large. Gladstone grandly rationalized the problem away: “It does, unfortunately, sometimes happen that, when broad principles are disguised by the incidents of the case, the momentary opinion, guided by the instincts of the populace…is not a safe guide.” Here he was reverting to Burke’s view of the independence of Members of Parliament from any mandate laid upon them by their constituents. And he was also creating the precedent for the way in which MPs will still decline to accept the will of the popular majority if they think the issue immoral or dangerously oppressive to a minority. The Commons vote a few weeks ago against the restoration of the gallows, and earlier votes for homosexual law reform, are the latest of many examples.

Gladstone was one of the first politicians to “have no enemies on the left,” a skill much practiced since. He would never go as far as the nonconformists, the proto-socialists, the Irish nationalists, or the radical Liberals, and yet for much of his later life he was able to rely upon their support without compromising himself with their principles. He was, moreover, never a metropolitan Englishman. He was born the son of a Liverpool merchant but educated at Eton and Oxford, and his life has been described as the finding of his way back from Oxford to Liverpool. He was a man of the British periphery: his home was in Wales, his later interests were in Ireland, his family was Scottish. (Stansky, in my view, makes too much of his ancestry. It is fun to quote Morley’s epigram that he was “a Highlander in the custody of a Lowlander,” but Gladstone absolutely lacked the ruthlessness and lucidity of the Scottish background, of which he had no direct experience. He may have escaped from his uppercrust education to some extent, but he was very English.)


So one comes to the Home Rule episodes. Here again, a majestic migration of the intellect took place. Gladstone began as a coercer, a man who resigned from Peel’s government in 1844 because they had increased the grant to the Catholic training college at Maynooth. By the time of his first spell as prime minister in 1868, however, he was pressing through the bill to disestablish the Anglican Church in Ireland and passing a Land Act to diminish the power of the landlord. Other acts followed, but the situation grew worse and the Irish MPs effectively obstructed the working of Parliament.

At the end of 1885, Gladstone took the decisive mental step, and resolved for Home Rule—internal self-government by an Irish parliament within the United Kingdom. There followed the Home Rule Bill of 1886, the rebellion by a section of Gladstone’s own party which ensured its defeat, and the whole succession of attempts to get Irish Home Rule through Parliament which occupied Gladstone and the governments which came after him. (A Bill was finally passed by both Houses in 1914, but the outbreak of war prevented its application. The Easter Rising of 1916 then removed any chance of settling the Irish question by devolution.)

Peter Stansky has done an elegant and highly perceptive study, not in the least overshadowed by the library of Gladstone biography which already existed. But I think that he is out of his depth over Home Rule, and misses some of the real issues. It is a highly topical subject in Britain. To the incredulous horror of Westminister, Scottish and Welsh nationalism emerged in the 1970s as powerful electoral forces, and the legislation carpentered up to satisfy them was entirely Gladstonian in its approach. Its fate was also remarkably similar: the Callaghan administration was almost destroyed by the defeat of the first Scotland and Wales Bill, and finally killed when a combination of a gerrymandered referendum and parliamentary revolts made it impossible to apply the second Scotland Act. In both cases, as in Gladstone’s time, a rebellion of back-bench MPs against devolution within the government party was the basic cause of failure.

Stansky is good about much of this. He shows Gladstone, ancient, alone, his party crumbling beneath him, seeking divine guidance before his first three-and-one-half-hour speech introducing the Bill. He gives space to his tremendous oratory throughout the debates. He sees that Home Rule “cracked the veneer” of London politics, dividing families and friends. But Stansky doesn’t, it seems to me, quite understand what was at stake then—and what was at stake in Britain during the last five years.

Any devolution project is a bullet aimed at the British political system. It passes through the flesh, but then crashes into the backbone which it can shatter but not penetrate. This backbone is the English seventeenth-century doctrine (Stansky should know better, incidentally, than to use England and Britain as interchangeable words) of parliamentary sovereignty. The people aren’t sovereign. The constitution isn’t sovereign, indeed does not exist in written form. Even the monarch’s power is not absolute. The absolutism and sovereignty have been transferred to Parliament.

This is where both Callaghan and Gladstone came unstuck. Under this antique doctrine, Parliament cannot share sovereignty with another body. Federalism is impossible. Westminster cannot, short of full Irish or Scottish independence, resign the right to overrule any developed legislature at any moment. Correspondingly, if one part of Britain has a sub-parliament but England does not, can there be Irish on Scottish MPs at Westminster? This was the occasion for the backbench rebellions in the 1880s and the 1970s.

In proposing devolution, then, Gladstone was exposing the fact that Britain is an unreformed ancien régime. By threatening the sovereignty of Parliament, he was opening the way to changes which might, in the social unrest of the early twentieth century, have become revolutionary. His opponents understood these implications better than he. But he lost, and the Ancient British institutions were saved. An-achronistic then, they are rotting now, and their weight is suffocating Britain today.

This Issue

October 11, 1979